Today is the anniversary of Berwick changing hands between the English and the Scots for the thirteenth and last time, falling to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) on August 24th, 1482. So what led up to this? Its a classic tale of everyday treachery and self-interest on all sides.
Reconstruction of Richard III
In 1455 the Wars of the Roses started and Henry VI asked James II of Scotland for assistance. If the Scots were to help, Berwick and Northumberland would be theirs. James’ raids into the North were such that Henry had to ask him not to be so enthusiastic. James threatened to take Berwick, but withdrew to attack Roxburgh in 1460, where a cannon exploded and killed him.
After the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Towton in March, 1461, Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou retreated to Berwick. Henry, it is thought, was afflicted by mental illness and it was Margaret who, in April 1461, negotiated with James II’s widow, Mary of Gueldres, over the gift of Berwick for Scottish assistance against the Yorkists.
Mary, having gained Berwick saw which way the wind was blowing and later sided with the Yorkists. Henry had to leave his refuge in Berwick and was eventually captured and murdered in the Tower of London.
In 1474 a treaty was made between Edward IV and James III in which Cecilia of York was betrothed to the young Scottish Prince James. Her dowry of 20,000 marks was to be paid to James III in yearly installments and there was to be a 45 year truce between the nations.
Edward IV (left) and James III (right)
The peace was broken when in 1480, the Earl of Angus, in defiance of the treaty, burnt Bamburgh. The Earl of Northumberland retaliated with a raid into Scotland. The situation escalated with the Scots asking the French for artillery and gunners to assist. From October 1480 to May 1481 Edward IV prepared for a major campaign. His ambassador was sent to James to explain in no uncertain terms that Scotland was in breech of a truce by occupying Berwick, Roxburgh and Coldingham, and not paying homage to him.
Edward sent a large navy to blockade the Firth of Forth and James raised a large army to defend the border and laid on victuals for Berwick and other places. Berwick’s town walls were strengthened.
A mediaeval town besieged by a navy.
No sooner had he done this than he withdrew the army! He had received word from the Pope calling for peace between England and Scotland and a plea for assistance against the common enemy, the Turks. James assumed that Edward had received and would obey similar entreaties.
Edward had, but ignored them and continued his harrying of the Scottish coast. Berwick was besieged throughout the winter of 1481-82 and much of the newly-built wall was destroyed. Edward was stirring things up in the meantime, empowering Richard to promise land to Scots who would help the English cause.
Meanwhile, James’ brother Alexander, Duke of Albany, who had been suspected of treachery and assisting in the 1480 raids had fled to France but now returned, landing at Southampton and prepared to make a deal with Edward.
In June 1482 at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire, it was agreed that, in exchange for Edward’s help in putting him on the Scottish throne, Albany would break the “auld alliance” with France and give Berwick and other lands in the West Marches to England within a fortnight of arriving in Edinburgh and would pay homage to Edward.
Artist’s impression of Fotheringay Castle
In July, the Scottish army, this time to be led by James, was raised once more to counter the advance on Berwick of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Albany. But the discontent towards James within Scotland was growing. The naval blockade had affected trade, and poverty and death were growing. Added to this, the coinage was being debased.
The English reached Berwick and took the town with ease. Lord Hailes however held out and did not surrender the castle.
The English army split up. 4,000 men were left to keep up the siege on Berwick Castle while the majority marched west. While one faction under the Earl of Northumberland continued its raids on Scottish border towns and castles, Gloucester marched on Edinburgh. The Scottish army never reached further than Lauder, west of Duns. A conspiracy led by the Earl of Angus, known as Archibald Bell-the-Cat resulted in many of the Scottish nobility being hanged at Lauder Bridge. James was captured and held prisoner in Edinburgh Castle.
Gloucester and Albany took advantage of this and were encamped outside Edinburgh at the beginning of August. From Richard’s point of view there was no need to take the town by force as Albany would, when King, be a vassal to the Yorkist cause. They were to meet with royalist representatives of what amounted to a government who, it was thought, would hand over Edinburgh and the crown to Albany.
However, news of Albany’s treaty with Edward had reached Edinburgh and support for the pretender had wained. Richard did not have sufficient a force to take he city by force and Albany got cold feet, not wanting to reveal his true intentions of kingship and so pretended he was there to claim land from which he had been disinherited. A compromise was reached on 4th August whereby Albany’s previous treason was pardoned and his lands restored. Cecilia’s dowry (remember that!) that had been given to the Scots would be repaid.
It suited Albany not to have the stigma of giving Berwick to the English. Richard resumed the siege of Berwick Castle on 11th August. Albany made a pretence of leading an army to relieve Berwick but this only reached the Lammermuirs. The defenders of Berwick had held out well against the English but saw that they had been betrayed and the castle fell by 24th August.
The Crowland Chronicler was dismissive of the campaign – that it cost too much for too little gain and that King Edward was grieved at the “frivolous expenditure”.
In a final twist to the tale however, it has been suggested that Richard, being the excellent commander that he was, knew all along that it would not be possible to take Edinburgh by force. For him the main objective were the forays into the borders and the taking of Berwick to strengthen his hold on his northern dominions.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the dispute over Berwick. The Scots attempted to take it back again but these amounted litle more than raids. Richard III was asked, in 1483, to assume the crown by the three estates of England after Edward IV’s sons were shown to be illegitimate. He died at Bosworth on 22nd August 1485.